articles from 2004

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The way we were ... and the fear we live with

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, The Independent, 20 June 2004

Democratic South Africa is 10 years old and on a roll. But the satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been telling it like it is for much longer than that. On the eve of a major arts festival in London, he looks back on two decades of struggle ... and worries about the future

1984. The year of Orwell's predicted darkness. I am performing an anti-apartheid one-man show, Total Onslaught, in Pretoria's State Theatre. Like doing Fiddler on the Roof in Nuremberg. I'm nervous in the car park afterwards. Three huge Afrikaner policemen lie in wait.

"Now we have you, Pieter-Dirk Uys, you little bastard! You go too far. You muck about with the Afrikaans language; you mess with the Afrikaans culture; you make us Afrikaners look like Nazis... but hell, you've got nice legs!"

Imagine where we in South Africa would have been today if Nelson Mandela had come out of jail angry. He had so many reasons to want revenge: in jail for 27 years for what he believed in; away from his children; his wife went mad. Nelson Mandela could so easily have come out of jail and spoken like Robert Mugabe. Mandela could have said, "Take the farms and kill the whites!" And they would have killed every single white in South Africa, and no one in the world or on Sky News would have looked in our direction. But he didn't say that. None of them said that. So here we are celebrating the 10th year of our democracy. While the world expected a bloodbath of revenge and recrimination, we got away with it. Nelson Mandela smiled and gave us a second chance.

Looking back on those 10 years of life — because I'm also only 10 years old — Mandela freed me from my prison of racism and fear. It was culture with a capital "K" that ruled South Africa during the years of our legalised racism, which officially ended on 10 May 1994, when Mandela became our first democratically elected President. Apartheid was based on colour and separated whites from blacks, Indians and (mixed-race) coloureds, and them from each other too. But apartheid wasn't a colour, it was a sound. We were all educated to sound ethnic, so that when you spoke to someone on the phone, you knew exactly what colour they were.

Blacks sounded black, coloureds sounded coloured, Indians, Indian. Afrikaners sounded deeply guttural and in charge, and English just sounded white. Unbelievably during the Eighties, Bill Cosby became the most admired and popular television star among Afrikaners. He wasn't black, because he sounded American.

The National Party government embraced the weapon of "Kultur", inspired no doubt by the experiences in Nazi Germany of the architect of apartheid, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. As a young man I learned first-hand how the alphabet of the intellect could dictate to the doubts of the soul.

I grew up in a constipated Afrikaner society where theatre was for whites only, opera was in German, Shakespeare was in Afrikaans and art was too important to share with just anyone. Like artists in the Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, our writers, painters and performers were rewarded with success and appreciation for looking only in the right direction. National awards were lavished on them and with great ease; these foot soldiers of the Boer "Kultur" took up their weapons of words and deeds and conquered the people.

Then in 1990 President FW de Klerk stood up in the South African parliament and spoilt it all by cancelling the enemy. He unbanned the African National Congress and freed Nelson Mandela. What had been our al-Qa'ida and Bin Laden were now our hope and future. The first casualty of this act of regime-change was cutting the apartheid culture off from its iron lung. Democracy rushed in where angels had once feared to sing. Suddenly we were all singing the same tune and the words became unimportant. Eleven official languages rubbed Eurocentricity up against Africanism. Hip-hop jived with punk and pop. Afrikaans boeremusiek with a new kwaito-beat kept awake the whites of the former nation of a mere 4 million. For now we were 40 million. And it all seemed to happen in a second.

Travelling around 480 schools and visiting a million South African kids with my Aids-awareness entertainment underlines the need to cut to the car-chase and use the language of the youth to describe the dangers of unsafe sex.

"Ask questions. Make sure it's safe. And oral sex is a blow job!" There is laughter. Afterwards there are questions from two pimply boys.

"Mr Uys, you said oral sex. Does that mean you talk it?"

"Hey? Don't you know, oral sex is a blow job? You know what a blow job is?"


So you must explain. And you do. Graphically. They listen. They nod. They understand.

"Ah! Cock-sucking! Why didn't you say so?"

Our young democratic culture is alive and visible, but does not yet know where it's going. That's good. When culture is planned and structured, it becomes a tool of government. Culture is often fuelled by desperation. Who would have thought that young blacks would create a new art form by pulling telephone wires out of the ground and shaping them into intricate figures and delightful animals? Those who were not allowed by the apartheid regime to read and write are creating their own War and Pieces. Grabbing the flotsam and jetsam of a past granite statue to racism, they create living celebrations of freedom of expression. Out of nothing can come so much.

I've been unemployed for 30 years. When the Pretoria regime banned my plays in the Seventies, no jobs were available and so one became the job. Self-employment means that what you do is what you get. It is also the ultimate freedom to fight for freedom and use that freedom to ensure freedom. We have arguably the greatest creative freedom in the world. In the USA and the UK so many are still waiting to be able to spread their wings and fly. In the West there is so little space; we have lots of space. In the West there are too many rules; we have not needed them yet. In the West there are too many people, too many hurdles to cross, too much money required. In South Africa, money to subsidise culture has to stand back for the needs of housing, health, education and new cars for the Cabinet. And so you do what you must do with nothing more than a dream and some discipline, but with the constitutionally protected freedom to speak, to express, to create. And so the virtual African Renaissance is becoming a reality.

There is a generation of "born-frees" — those who have finished their schooling without legalised segregation — who are now bursting to talk, to paint, to scream, to laugh and to demand. They don't even know what apartheid was. Today, the legendary anti-apartheid struggle is yesterday's battle and in the light of the new struggles, history.

I sit with a nine-year-old black girl whose language is Afrikaans. She is struggling with an English story.

"The cat sits on the mat..."

"What colour is the cat?" I ask.

"I don't know. There's no picture."

"What do you see in your head?"

"My head? Can I see it in my head?" She thinks. "Can the cat be black? And the mat, can the mat be red?"

"Yes," I say, "and where is the black cat sitting on the red mat? In your house?"

"No, in your house. My mother doesn't like cats."

Many cultural seeds have managed to take root in our daily lives since the Rainbow Revolution. And with 11 official languages, everyone has a chance to be clear and sharp in their mother tongue. Of course, the bottom line is usually in English, ironically the one foreign language that has thrived at the southern tip of Africa. Although Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch, it has developed as a bona fide language influenced by African, European and Asian alphabets. But theatre is still mainly in English, sometimes Afrikaans, seldom Xhosa or Zulu. Popular music is in English, usually with an eye on the international market-place. The huge groundswell of South African sound (about to be celebrated as part of the City of London Festival) is helping us find our unique musical foundation that embraces so many tribal sounds.

The fact that we have a bold young culture emerging from the ruins of apartheid, is in itself a miracle. In only 10 years of freedom, the voices of the new generation are being heard on every level of culture, forcing the tired and dusty repetitions of imported cultures into the background. There's no point in depending on solid inspiration from Britain or America: a copy of a successful West End play set in a South African context is useless. It is a square peg in no hole.

Our education system fluctuates between various blueprints: there's simply too much to absorb and too much of it isn't confident enough to establish itself strongly. But it's early days yet. The arts festival circuit has created a strong alternative to former government-subsidised arts councils. Modern technology allows the concert to happen in the backyard. It is now easy to endanger freedom of speech by taking it for granted. Once, censorship nearly crippled the theatre: books were banned and critical speech was a foot cut to fit the official shoe. Now the total freedom allows a Hustler magazine to lie on the bottom shelf of a supermarket, casually open on the centre-spread and keenly stared at by an eight-year-old.

Carelessness with freedoms will lead to the curtailment of those freedoms. And because there is no longer the great inspiration of official government displeasure that often led to wonderful publicity — I always referred to the old Censor Board as my PR department — the old magic of "less is more" has made way for the excessive and the bland. Whereas self-censorship became a frightening virus during the apartheid era, diminishing the sharpness of our anger, today it is back as political correctness. Criticism of government is deemed unpatriotic. The young black stand-up comics will avoid politics so that they will get a television special.

The old anti-apartheid struggle was so much simpler: black vs white, good against evil. Even a four-year-old child understood the T-shirt "DOWN WITH APARTHEID". We were the world's last political T-shirt. Now we carry the words "VIVA DEMOCRACY" across our chests. It doesn't travel as far. The target is too soft.

Two weeks before the April election I was at a high school. Most of the final-year students were over 18 and looking forward to voting for the first time. There was one black youth who disagreed. Why was he not going to vote?

"We fought for freedom. All we got was democracy."

Today's new targets are in many ways worse than the old ones. After having had an apartheid government that killed people, we now have a democratic government that just lets them die. Over 600 people lose their lives in South Africa each day, due to government carelessness. They're not being shot or tortured or assassinated. They die of a virus that has no cure. For inexplicable reasons, President Thabo Mbeki has overshadowed his political sharpness and forward-looking vision with his consistent denial of the urgency to address the HIV/Aids pandemic. Ironically, the culture that survived apartheid, that became invigorated by the heady democratic freedoms of the Nineties, will die like withered bunches of old roses on the graves of a nation. There is no culture in a graveyard. Culture dies when people die.

And so we must find every way to stay alive. We must use all the aspects of our various cultures and means of expression to warn against the tidal wave of fear. As we survived apartheid, we must again laugh at our terrible fear and make that fear less fearful. The virus will not go away. It is still lethal. But without the fear, it won't be so overpowering. It's just a virus, not a bomb in a train in Madrid.

The weapon of mass destruction does exist. It's in South Africa. It's the virus that leads to Aids and only education can fight it. Not a lecture, or a finger-wag, or a presentation.


Music, art, words, drama, humour — the culture of our Renaissance to fight the new plague that threatens to silence us forever.

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